Thursday, 31 December 2015

Happy New Year

Hello!  It's the evening of 31st December 2015 here in Guildford, and already New Year in other parts of the world.  I don't plan on staying up until midnight, so I'll wish all my readers a Happy New Year now.  I hope 2016 is a good year for you all.  

I'm spending my evening listening to Radio 3, doing a bit of exam marking, and diverting myself by posting here.  I trust your evening is so enjoyable!

[Note added at 11pm -- and it looks like I might risk staying up until midnight -- have switched from Radio 3's Last Night of the Proms re-run, which was starting to get towards some tedious things, and now enjoying Jarvis Cocker's brilliant Wireless Nights on Radio 4]

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Books of 2006 / 2015

Back when I used to keep a livejournal (a blog, basically, before the term was used, though aimed more at a personal diary / journal audience than a expostulatory thing like what we now call blogging), I posted a list of books that I had read in the year 2006, mostly as a way of keeping track.  Here's the list again:

Louise Bagshawe - Tueday's Child
Emily Bronte - Wuthering Heights
Jackie Clune - Man of the Month Club
Andrew Crumey - Mobius Dick 
Robert Daley - Enemy of God 
Charles Dickens - Our Mutual Friend
Arthur Conan Doyle - The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle - The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle - The Hound of the Baskervilles
Arthur Conan Doyle - The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle - The Return of Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle - The Sign of Four
Arthur Conan Doyle - The Valley of Fear
Thomas H Cook - Red Leaves 
Thomas H Cook - The Murmur of Stones 
Ian Fleming - Dr No
Ian Fleming - From Russia, with Love
Thomas Hardy - Jude the Obscure
Alice Hoffman - The Ice Queen 
Boris Johnson - Seventy-Two Virgins
Henning Mankell - Depths
Rosa Mundi - Vocational Girl
Julie Myerson - Something Might Happen
David Nichols - Starter for Ten
Iain Pears - An Instance of the Fingerpost
Stef Penney - The Tenderness of Wolves
Thomas Pynchon - Gravity's Rainbow
Ian Rankin - Knots and Crosses
Jean Rhys - Wide Sargasso Sea
Philip Roth - The Plot Against America
JD Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye
Patrick Süskind - Perfume
Peter Temple - The Broken Shore
Edward Vallance - The Glorious Revolution
Peter Woit - Not Even Wrong

Who would have thought that I'd ever read one of Louise Mensch's books (written under her maiden name of Louise Bagshawe)?  Before coming across this list, I'd quite forgotten.  I don't remember much about it at all.  I also read Boris Johnson's novel that year.  I must have had a lot of time on my hands.  Indeed, that was the last year when I didn't have children to occupy my time.  On top of that, it wasn't too long after 2006 that my commuting to work reduced drastically, which cut back the time when I used to get most of my book reading done.  I haven't been very conscientious in finding a suitable time to fit reading back in.  I also made all those books link to a page on, which I haven't shopped at for a few years.  

This year has not been so bad (compared with some recent years).  I've tried to make a bit of effort to read more.  I haven't been keeping track of everything, but from memory, I have read:

It's a much shorter list than from 2006, though I omit the large quantity of books for toddlers that I've read this year.  Well done, JD Salinger, for making both lists.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Christmas 2015

It's a good few days into the Christmas break.  Though, contrary to popular opinion, Universities do not close over the long summer break when undergraduates are not present, they do close for an extended period over Christmas and New Year.  I've had a pretty hectic Christmas so far.  We hosted many family members over the Christmas period, with 12 of us sitting down for Christmas lunch.   I cooked a lot of food, which of course we are still working through.

I'm now at my parent's place in Bishop's Stortford, enjoying a couple of days off of cooking for everyone.  I got some nice gifts for Christmas.  I've started reading the copy of Candide that my sister-in-law got me.  I was particularly struck by the discussion of the treatment of refugees from the south of Europe coming to the north, dating back to the middle of the eighteenth century.   It seems an appropriate thing to quote, not only in light of the current festival that is being celebrated in ostensibly Christian countries, but also in light of the current behaviour of ostensibly Christian societies:

His provisions failed him when he arrived in Holland; but having heard that everybody was rich in that country, and that they were Christians, he did not doubt but he should meet with the same treatment from them as he had met with in the Baron's castle, before Miss Cunegonde's bright eyes were the cause of his expulsion thence.
He asked alms of several grave-looking people, who all answered him, that if he continued to follow this trade they would confine him to the house of correction, where he should be taught to get a living.

Merry Christmas, all

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Farewell to Magnox from IoP Nuclear Industry / History of Physics Groups

Notwithstanding my last-but-one post in which I questioned the worth of posting slides which accompany talks online stand-alone objects, I received today an email from the IoP Nuclear Industry Group telling me that the slides from the recent "Farewell to Magnox" half day meeting which they co-organised with the IoP History of Physics group are now online.  So if you fancy looking over the slides, then follow the link.  I'd have liked to attend the event but the date didn't work out, alas. 

The picture attached is of the first Magnox reactor, and the first ever civilian nuclear reactor that put electricity into a national grid -- the erstwhile Calder Hall (now called Sellafield).

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Coming and going

I see that we (by which I mean the Univeristy of Surrey) have appointed a new Vice Chancellor.  The lucky person is G. Q. Max Lu, currently provost of the University of Queensland.  Exciting times for us.  The email telling us about our new VC mentions that his background is in nanotechnology.  I guess that is good news for the physicists in the university, though it's debatable whether you really want a VC in your own field.

As Prof Lu arrives, so leaves the guy in the office next to me.  Alan Dalton, also a nanotechnology person, is off to the University of Sussex, which is near, but not within walking distance of, Brighton (so, really, Surrey is a better place to come and study since you can at least walk into town).  My wife was kind enough to order me a T-shirt online a few years ago which says "no, I don't know where Alan is" based on the number of students who knock on my door asking me if I know where Dr Dalton is.   I guess I will have to retire the T-shirt.  I should also mention that Alan claims that he has to answer a lot of students who knock on his door asking if they know where I am.  Touché

That's Alan in the picture.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Talks on the web

Sometimes, when one speaks at a conference, the conference organisers request that you write up a paper for the proceedings of the conference, which then get published somewhere.  It seems to be increasingly the case that many people don't like writing conference proceedings for a variety of reasons, with the main one being that they are considered low-prestige places to publish, and consequently there are various drivers not to bother wasting time in writing them, or wasting interesting results that could be published somewhere else.  There is even pressure from on high not to write conference proceedings, coming from the REF culture.  I tend to write conference proceedings for those conferences which ask for them.  For one thing, it's not hard to write about the work that one has been doing, and usually (at least in my case) I can show some calculations that are interesting enough examples, but something that doesn't make the cut for a paper destined elsewhere.  They can also be good practice for PhD students to be involved in writing the proceedings and getting some publications on their CVs.  Also, it's a sign of collegiality that if my friends and colleagues can be bothered to organise a conference (which I know from experience can be quite time consuming) then I can play my part in making it a success, and write the request proceeding article, sticking it on the arXiv, too, so that anyone can read it (indeed, one went up yesterday from me for a conference in Sofia in October)

Still -- I certainly don't mind when conferences decide not to include proceedings.  They are probably an idea that has had their day.  What seems to be replacing them, though, is that conference organisers want to put talks up on the web after the conference.  This seems to me to be a total waste of time, unless one writes the slides that accompany one's talks to be completely self-contained, which is really a contradiction, since then there would be nothing to say during the talk.  I tend to put things on slides that I can't say in words (pictures, graphs, movies etc) and say most of the words myself, rather than have people read them.  Since most of the talks get put up as pdf files, movies don't really work at all, but what's missing is the commentary and the context.  I really find it next to useless.  Attached to this post is a screen grab from one talk of mine that has been put on the web by a conference organiser.  The grab shows a snapshot from  an animation of a calculation of the collision of two uranium nuclei.  A snapshot of an animation is a poor proxy for the whole thing.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Surprising REF article

I came across, via a tweet by a colleague, an article in Times Higher Education written by someone who felt compelled to quit as a member of a REF panel.  Among the reasons given, is the following paragraph
But it became clear to me that, in spite of everyone’s best efforts, the system does not constitute peer review in any meaningful sense. There is simply too much material to assess with the care that would be rightly expected for reviews for research grants, publications or promotions.
The thing that really surprised me about the article is that there is anyone out there in academia who actually ever thought that it even could be possible that the REF could really do anything approaching decent peer review.  I think the quantity of material is a red herring, really.  The main point (which is also mentioned in the article) is that the subject matter is so specialised that the kind of numbers of people on a REF panel cannot judge across a discipline in a fair way.  I get sent papers by journals to referee, but they are absolutely lined up with my area of research.  I'm a nuclear physicist and there are papers in nuclear physics which a competent journal editor would not send me to referee, because I couldn't do a fair job of it.  Journal editors know this very well, and they understand peer review.  Whoever came up with the REF does not understand it.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

My talk at ISNET

My last day at the ISNET-3 workshop also featured my talk.  I was happy enough with how I presented what I presented, though I can't help feel that the audience would have been more interested in what I said if I had performed a more sophisticated analysis of my calculations... which I guess is the point of the workshop.  The lesson, I think, is that accepting invitations to too many workshops is not consistent with having time to do lots of calculations, especially if one does not have a large team of postdocs and students behind you.  On the other hand, I had three separate discussions which led to plans to collaborate on some different projects -- on on the link between fusion cross-sections and the nuclear equation of state, one on fission and another on giant resonances.  Now to do the necessary calculations.  

Here are some calculations I presented in my talk today.  They show a case in which varying model parameters can give different outcomes.  In this case, the parameters is the size of the space in which I perform my calculations, with all other physics input the same.  The result is that in one case we get fusion, and in another not.  That's sort of bad, in that we don't want things to depend on technical details of calculations, but usually we can't completely avoid it, and at least we should better map out where the are such issues.  

Monday, 16 November 2015

A bunch of posteriors

It's the end of the first day of the ISNET–3 workshop I mentioned yesterday.  There have been a number of interesting talks by people using sophisticated statistical methods to better understand what their theoretical calculations (mostly, though we've also had a couple of talks by experimentalists) are telling them.  At least, it seems sophisticated to me, since I think of a posterior (as a noun) as something to sit on.  I will not be able to hide just how unsophisticated I am for very long, as I'll be talking on Wednesday.  Hopefully at least my talk will prompt some useful comments from the audience.

The workshop is in a basement room with no windows (at least, none that are not covered up).  I suppose this is a deliberate plan to stop us from looking at the beautiful scenery, such as the picture attached here that I took during the lunch break.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

France, Lebanon, Italy

I am on my way to Italy, for a conference about Information and Statistics in Nuclear Experiment and Theory.  Of course, the news at the moment is more about France, and the terrible attacks against those enjoying their Friday night to go out and enjoy a meal, a football game, or a music concert.  

Less prominent in the UK news was a similar attack in Beirut on the same day with a loss of civilian life of the same magnitude, if not quite so high.  

I don't think I have anything especially sage to say, except that the right thing to do when making a point is to rise above the idea that killing people is an okay way to do it, even if you think that those you are against do it routinely.  Let's be nice to each other -- and take responsibility for taking the lead in it, even when we feel slighted.

As an unrelated picture, here's my youngest daughter, at the library, showing her delight in reading books.  Hopefully that is an indication of more hope for the future (though I suppose it depends what books she gets in to).

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

A new paper on fission and one of fusion (so all bases covered)

When PhD students leave and graduate and get jobs doing other things, they don't always (ever?) write up the things in their thesis for publication -- at least that's my experience in the UK where the funded PhD takes last for three years, and there is usually a race to get the actual thesis submitted in time.  

So, it is often the case that I sit on work by my PhD students that could usefully be disseminated in the form of publications that are a little more wieldy than the thesis itself, though these are now easy enough to make available electronically. 

Today, I submitted a paper drawing on work on nuclear fusion from one student, Emma, but with later contributions from another student (Matthew, who is a current student at Surrey), and another paper got published about nuclear fission in Physical Review C today based on part of the thesis of another student, Phil, who finished his PhD last year.  The fact that the latter paper has seen the light of the day relatively quickly is thanks to Phil's co-supervisor, Arnau, who did the lion's share of kicking the draft into shape.  

If you want to read these papers that have been published / submitted, then the go-to place is the arXiv, where physicists put versions of papers before submission, updating in light of referee comments, so that they are free to read to anyone.  These versions are here and here.  The picture accompanying the post is a figure from the paper published today, showing snapshots in a simulation of fission of a plutonium isotope.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015


In celebration of the fact that there are now three Universities in the UK that have theoretical nuclear physics activity (York now, to add to Surrey and Manchester), the nuclear theory community have got together to introduce ourselves to the new group & vice versa, and to generally chew the fat (though in my case, being a vegetarian, I'm more swooshing round some olive oil).  We've spent the time in a combination of giving short talks about what we each do, and then talking a bit about that and a bit about political things.  Day one has been nice.  Our meeting is in Manchester.  As soon as we arranged the dates, it was clear that for some reason hotels were really really expensive.  Chris, the PhD student from Surrey pointed out the reason -- that Manchester United were playing a home Champions League match against a Russian team.  Though it's not my own money, I still kinda resented paying three figures per night for a room in a standard hotel in Manchester, so I'm in The Diamond Lodge, which is in the suburb of Gorton, next to the dog track.  Not necessarily the most salubrious part of town, I've been led to believe, but it's a perfectly nice hotel, and there's an easy bus ride to (close to) the University.  Anyway, the only trouble I've had here was near the University, where I met my sister-in-law for lunch.  We were in a pub when a really drunk guy came in and started dancing and singing to the song on the jukebox, with a can of Stella in his hand.  He the wandered off to another part of the pub.  After a few minutes, he found cause to spray the Stella from his can over the pub -- aimed (inadvertently, as far as I can tell) at me.  That seemed to have followed some altercation and the staff were trying to throw him out.  He was making all kinds of threats (his girlfriend was going to come and do nasty things to the bar staff, apparently), whence he left, with a last act, as he went through the door, of throwing his half-full can of Stella back into the pub, narrowly missing me.  

Oh well.  I think that was something of a one-off. For dinner, the locals had organised us a dinner at a restaurant at the centre of town called Croma.  It was okay -- I can see how people like it, but it's not really a place that caters for vegetarians, though the Margherita pizza was fine.  I left a bit hungry, though, which seems to be unfortunate for a restaurant.  

I got the bus back for the long ride to Gorton from stop E0 on Piccadilly.  For those reading that are nuclear physics experts, you will no doubt smile at the amusement I felt, as someone interested in giant monopole resonances, that I had to use a stop named E0.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Sante Fe for a day

It's that part of the year when we make our second visits to our students on their MPhys Research Year placement.  I have two students I'm responsible for making a visit to -- one based in Tennessee and another in Indiana.  Where better to combine meeting both of them in one place than at the American Physical Society nuclear physics meeting in Sante Fe, New Mexico?

It's a part of the US I haven't visited before, and it's quite something -- huge open blue skies and breathtaking landscape.  The city itself is also rather pretty, with most of the houses built in adobe (or faux-adobe, really, but still rather distinctive).  There's a lot of public artwork in the city, and the picture attached shows one of our placement students, Abdellatif, standing in front of some fish statues poking out of the shingle.

Both of these placements are in nuclear physics -- one on developing algorithms for pulse shape analysis to help pinpoint where reactions take place in radiation detectors, and the other on improving theoretical calculations of neutron capture cross sections for stellar nucleosynthesis.  Both are getting on well, and have got a lot out of their research year.  Before too long, they will be back at Surrey to take their final semester of courses, and then on to the next thing.  I will back at Surrey on Monday!

Thursday, 22 October 2015

A Week in Kyoto

I've been spending this week at the Yukawa Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Kyoto in Japan as part of a long-term (running over many weeks) workshop on theoretical nuclear physics. 

I'm here for just one week of it (this week, obv.). It's been a proper workshop -- with actual discussion,  and I've got lots of good ideas from the discussion and some plans for immediate collaborations with others, so it's been worthwhile from a physics point of view.

I also like coming to Japan.  It's a nice country to visit.  Not always easy for people such as me who haven't learnt Japanese, but that's not quite an obstacle enough in the big cities.  Of course, I should learn Japanese if I ever become a more regular visitor.

By chance, the particular week I am here includes the Jidai festival, which happens on 22nd Oct every year.  It celebrates the history of Japan, and happens in Kyoto because it is was the capital city of Japan for ~1000 years before that role passed to Tokyo in the nineteenth century.  The picture in this post shows a snap I took from the procession.  I could in principle be out now watching more of it, and the firework sounds are pretty loud in my hotel room, but I'm calling this bed-time.  

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Plastic electronics

I had a nice time this evening watching and listening to Radu Sporea talking about plastic electronics (= built on a plastic substrate).  I work on rather abstract theoretical stuff, but I enjoy very much learning about physics research that is more directly aimed at creating new technologies.  Radu's talk highlighted electronic devices that can be created on flexible plastic sheets.  Perhaps the most obvious application is to mobile phone screens which can be flexible without breaking.  I'm fortunate in not having ever cracked my mobile phone screen, but it was only earlier today that I sat on a train opposite someone with a cracked glass screen.  

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Open Access Week

I saw from an email from my University that it's Open Access Week next week, and that they are running a number of events to celebrate 10 years of Open Access being supported at the University.  I guess that's good, but I wonder if they'd like to know that the first paper I published on arriving at Surrey was submitted to the arXiv in 2000, a bit more than 10 years ago, and has thus been open access for all that time.

I would perhaps go along to one of the events and gently make this point, but I will be in Kyoto all next week.  Exciting!

Thursday, 8 October 2015


Greetings from Sofia!  I'm attending a workshop, which goes by the name SDANCA, which stands for Shapes and Dynamics of Atomic Nuclei: Contemporary Aspects.  I don't know if the acronym is supposed to convey any particular meaning in Bulgarian, but googling while on a Bulgarian IP address brings up a freestyle wrestler called Stanka Zlateva (I guess the Cyrillic станка can be transliterated just as well to Sdanka).  

We've had day one, and I was fortunate enough to be given a talk in the first session.  I always like to get my talk out of the way and enjoy the rest of the workshop without thinking about my own talk.  It's been a nice event so far -- it's really working as a workshop, with some proper discussion, unlike some attempted  workshops which are just conferences with talks and a short time for questions for those few speakers who do not overrun horribly.  

My favourite talk so far was from a speaker from Heidelberg who talked about possibilities for direct laser-nucleus interactions.  It's a topic I've blogged about before, and one that is likely to lead to the first 'nuclear optics' applications.  Her talk was not very sanguine about the hopes for immediate applications, but one promising thing is the potential use of the first excited state in Th-229 (at a mere 8 eV -- less than the atomic ionisation potential of hydrogen) as a nuclear clock for precise standards of time.

I took the picture, above, last night during the registration period.  The three people most in the foreground were the speakers in the first session today: (L-R) Peter Ring, Yang Sun and George Lalazissis.  In the background is Nikolay Minkov, who chaired that first session, as well as being the prime mover in organising the workshop.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

From COMEX5 in Krakow

I'm at a conference in Krakow, Poland.  The conference is called COMEX5.  My other half said it sounded like a comic convention.  It's not, but it does indeed share a name with a convention which took place in Singapore a couple of weeks ago.

The COMEX title is an abbreviation of "Collective Motion in Exotic Nuclei."  Despite this being the series's fifth outing, it is really quite a venerable conference series, it being a re-branding of the Giant Resonance conference.  Giant resonances are the main topic of the conference.  They are vibrational states which are very collective in nature, meaning that they feature the action of all nucleons in the nucleus.  Their observation dates back to the mid 1930s when at least the first hint was seen (by Bothe and Gentner in Heidelberg).

I'm giving a talk here on Thursday about using time-dependent methods to describe these resonances, and what is shows about the underlying structure of the nuclei.  I also, of course, take part in the organised events during the conference, such as the reception in Krakow's beautiful Collegium Maius, as pictured.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Suggestions from PRL

Last month, I commented about the high proportion of articles in the nuclear physics section of Physical Review Letters that are in the sub-field of relativistic heavy ion collisions (RHIC) and how they form the preponderance of articles promoted by the editors to appear on the journal front page.   In the last month, the trend has continued, and only RHIC papers have been highlighted.  So, let me highlight here a paper which was published last month, and has been picked up by a few news websites:

The paper is called "Direct measurement of the mass difference of 163Ho and 163Dy solves the Q-value puzzle for the neutrino mass determination."  The physics motivation behind the work is that the nuclear reaction:
163Ho + e163Dy + νe
can be used as a model-independnt (i.e. not relying on assumptions about the structure of the nucleus that may not be correct) mans of determining the mass of the electron neutrino -- something that is not pinned-down at all well.  The mass of the neutrino is known to be extremely small, but not zero.  By observing the above reaction, and using conservation of energy, one can work out the energy balance (the "Q-value" of the title) from the observed particles, and deduce the energy carried off by the (unobserved) neutrino, and hence its mass.  To be able to do this, the masses of the two nuclear isotopes in the equation: Holmium–163 and Dysprosium–163 must be known to very high accuracy.  Actually -- it is only the difference between the two masses that needs to be known, and there is disagreement in the published data what this difference is, to a level that swamps the tiny neutrino mass.

The experimenters here used a Penning trap to store ions of each of the isotopes.  For a given particle of mass m and charge q moving in a trap with magnetic field B, the particle will move in a circle with frequency f=qB/(2πm).  Measuring the frequency allows a value of the mass to be determined.  They put the two different ions in the same trap at the same time, but in separate bunches, reducing systematic effects to do with e.g. variations in the magnetic field.  They concluded that their value for the mass difference is at variance with the "accepted" value (that published in the Atomic Mass Evalution) by more than 7 times the size of their error bar.  Thus, the error in determining the neutrino mass should be able to be reduced in future experiments looking at the reaction above.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Anti-migration sentiment in Guildford

There has been much in the news recently giving a reminder that many other people in the world find themselves in a wretched situation and are in terrible danger.  Like other humans since the dawn of our species, they wish to wander or migrate to where they hope to find a better life.  

Here in the UK, immigration was more or less unrestricted in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th up to the First World War.  These days, restricting immigration seems to be a major policy of the main political parties.  Belatedly, our government has agreed a somewhat mealy-mouthed acceptance that Britain can play a part in giving some of our displaced and frightened fellow humans a more stable life.  It's a start.  I have signed the petition calling on the government to accept more asylum seekers and refugee migrants in the UK.  It's been a particularly successful petition on the government's official petition web site, having attracted 400,000 signatures thus far.  100,000 are needed to force a debate on the matter in parliament, and perhaps it was part of the reason that the government acted.  

I note, though, that on the government petition website, at the time of writing, a reactionary petition to cease all immigration into the UK is currently accumulating signatures at a higher rate, as the picture below shows.
This brings me to the more on-topic part of my post.  On-topic, in the sense that this blog is purportedly about nuclear physics and life in academia in the UK.

While walking along a footpath in Guildford a couple of days ago, I spotted a sign, shown below, saying "A no students zone":

Someone had gone to the effort of making a bunch of these, and sticking them on lampposts around town.  Now, I can't speak for the person who did this (but if they chance to find this blog post, I'd welcome them to post and give their view) but one doesn't have to go too far to find people who don't want students to come and live in the same town as them.  This is another migration issue, though one that includes national, as opposed to solely international, migration, and one in which the migrants are typically not in the most distressing circumstances.  

I'm not sure of the whole gamut of reasons why residents are against this particular kind of migration, but an opinion piece in a local web site suggests that the pressure on housing is one reason.  A local political party which won council seats (more seats than Labour) wants the students segregated, though how they propose to deny citizens access to the private rental sector is not something I've found on their website.  I can certainly understand anyone's frustration that it is hard to afford somewhere to live in Guildford, but blaming migrants is never the right answer.  It may appear the proximate cause of one's woes, but blaming the person who happened to arrive in the area later than you or your ancestors did is not conducive to any kind of reasonable solution.

I should perhaps disclose that I wasn't born in Guildford, but now live here.  I always thought that was an acceptable thing to do, though I did move from the place of my birth as a 5 year old.

To end on a positive note for the burghers of Guildford;  The government petition website lets you see what the local breakdown of popular petitions is.  I showed above how the petition to stop immigrants coming to the UK is currently getting more signatures then the one supporting the settling of refugees.  In Guildford, the one to accept migrants is top of the list and the one to stop them features nowhere on it.  Second on the list from Guildford is to debate a vote of no confidence on Health Secretary, and Surrey MP, Jeremy Hunt.  I guess that's a doubly-positive note to end with.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

September in Preview

Who let it be September, already?  

Actually, it's seemed rather Septemberal for a while.  Yesterday was the late August bank holiday, and it never seemed to get very bright here in Guildford, with the sky overcast all day, and drizzle falling for much of it.  The picture attached to this post is from my holiday last week, showing a typical scene (though it had stopped raining for the picture itself).

September means back-to-school time, but only kids -- at my University, at least, the students don't come back until 5th October, with new starters coming for the week leading up to that date.   Freshers' week is usually a busy time for me.  At least, it has been over the last several years, as I've been a Warden on campus.  This means I live on campus, in the student accommodation blocks, and act as a kind of hybrid between a policeman, a headmaster, and a social worker.  It's been an interesting job.  Sometimes enjoyable, sometimes not so much, but doing a second job for seven years and having free accommodation have enabled me to buy a place to live in Guildford, which is no mean feat.  So -- September means moving house for me.  I remember from previous occasions of doing it that moving house is not a particularly pleasurable experience... but it will be nice to be in a home of my own.  

Shortly after moving, I'm going to conference #2 of the summer.  It's called COMEX5, which abbreviation stands for Collective Motion in Exotic Nuclei Under Extreme Conditions.  I'm looking forward to that.  It's in Krakow, Poland, which is a nice place to spend a week, and I'm sure to get a bunch of interesting ideas from the talks (excepting my own).  After I get back, there'll be a final week of undergraduates not being here, followed by the arrival of the new students.  Exciting!  It looks like we've got another bumper year in terms of student intake, and that ~120 is our new norm

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Kelvin in Kent

I'm on holiday for a week with my family.  We're staying in Deal, in Kent.  So far, it has rained in an unseasonable way, with reports on the TV news this evening that there has been flooding in parts of Kent.  Right now, I am looking over a view of the English Channel, and although very overcast, it's not raining.  I can't see France across the water, though, which you can do even on a moderately clear day.

The picture shows a current snapshot of rainfall. The wind is from the southwest at the moment, and that heavy rain in the North Sea was over us not long ago.  It's not looking terribly likely that things will get too much better over the next few days.  

Fortunately we are staying in a wonderful house, thanks to the kindness of some friends of my parents, whose house it is.  They are letting us use it while they are away.  The bookshelves are full of some great books -- including some that a physicist would find particularly interesting.  There are some biographies of famous physicists;  I've started reading Sir Oliver Lodge's autobiography, and there are several books about Lord Kelvin.  It turns out that the owner of the house is a direct descendant of Lord Kelvin.  Now, if only the temperature were a little higher on the Kelvin scale, our holiday may be a bit more fun...

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Notre Dame

I've just made a visit to the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, USA.  I was there to visit one of our MPhys undergraduate masters'  students who is spending a year there on placement on a project to do with neutron capture reactions in stars.  As I often do, I took a picture of the student at the facility where he is working.  The picture is slightly misleading, as we were both on a tour of the experimental nuclear physics facilities in the Physics Department, and it was the first time either of us had seen it.  Abdellatif, the student pictured, is working on a theoretical project, and doesn't ever step into the lab, lest the theory-waves break the equipment.

The University of Notre Dame have been (and continue to be) wonderful supporters of our MPhys programme over the years.  I had never been there before, but now that I am the director of the MPhys Research Year programme, I wanted to come to show my appreciation to them for supporting our students.  Of course, they get in return some excellent junior researchers who can really do important work for their research programme.  Most, if not all, of our MPhys students publish papers as a result of their research year work, and the majority go on to do PhDs and many then get faculty positions (though some forge more successful careers).  In fact, Abdellatif is being supervised in his project by a Notre Dame faculty member who was a Surrey MPhys student around 15 years ago, who in her time was on a research placement.  

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Relativistic bias

As it's summer, I find I have the time more often to just browse recent results in nuclear physics.  One way of doing this is to go to the Physics Review Letters (PRL) website, and look at all the recent papers in the Nuclear Physics section.

If I do this, I see many interesting papers;  Some recent Earth-based determinations of reaction rates for nuclear reactions that take place in stars and which are important in understanding stellar evolution;  Some neat calculations of how nuclei can stretch into rod shapes as they rotate very fast;  The observation of a new and really exotic nucleus -- an isotope of hyper-hydrogen;  a new "soft" excitation mode in Lithium-11, itself a really interesting nucleus which is as large as a nucleus of lead despite having around 200 fewer nucleons in it.

What struck me most immediately about the list is that there were three papers among the 25 on the list that were "Editors' Suggestions" and that they were all from the sub-field of relativistic heavy-ion collisions.  Editors' Suggestions are exactly what the name suggests, and they get promoted within the Physical Review Letters website, appearing in the Highlights section.   From looking at the papers involved, I find it hard to conclude anything but that the editors involved in the relativistic heavy-ion papers are more active and zealous in promoting papers in their area than editors involved in the rest of nuclear physics.  I realise PRL has a history of publishing quite a high proportion of relativistic heavy-ion collision papers compared with other nuclear physics journals, perhaps thanks to its geographical ties to Brookhaven Lab, but I had not quite realised the obvious editorial differences between the sub-fields.

Anyway, attached to this plot is a pretty picture of some stretched-out Carbon isotopes from the preprint version of the rod-shaped nucleus paper mentioned above.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The annual increment

It was my birthday yesterday. I turned 29 years old.  In hexadecimal, at least.  My birthday always seems to have a habit of occurring right in the middle of summer.  I guess it's good in that it meant I never had to go to school on my birthday, but was probably bad for my mum who had to be in the late stages of pregnancy in the hottest days of the year.  Mind you, in Glasgow, maybe it doesn't matter too much.

England regained the Ashes on my birthday, which was nice.  The football season started, too.  My team -- Ipswich -- managed to get to 90 minutes with a 2-0 lead then end up drawing 2-2.  May as well get used to the way things will go for the next season, I guess.  As I mentioned in my previous post, as I've grown up, I've been used to having the news talk about the anniversary of the dropping of the nuclear bombs in World War 2 bracketing my birthday.  The second one took place today, on 9th Aug, in 1945.  It's this arbitrary temporal coincidence which prompted an editor from The Conversation to ask me if I would write something about nuclear physics.  It's here.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

70 years since Hiroshima

Today, the 6th of August 2015, marks 70 years since the first atomic bomb was used in anger.  I'm not much of an historian of nuclear physics, though I can surely see that the use of atomic weapons was as much an irreversibly terrible act by humanity as any other.  

If you want to follow more about the history of nuclear weapons, then my go-to person on the internet for all things nuclear-weapon related is Alex Wellerstein.  Follow him on twitter: @wellerstein or follow his blog.

Even before I was a nuclear physicist, I'd noted that my birthday (on 8th August) falls between the two days when the bombs fell on Hiroshima (6th Aug) and Nagasaki (9th Aug).  Always around my birthday during my life have there been news stories about the bombs.  The biggest event, though, on the actual day of my birth, in 1974, was Richard Nixon's resignation.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

ils ne regrettent rien

I wonder if regular readers of this blog (Hi Kelly, Arron), have ever noticed the similarity (as pointed out by Arnau Rios) between Prof Wilton Catford of the University of Surrey and Aristide Bruant, the erstwhile French cabaret singer and nightclub owner, famed for his portrayal by Toulouse-Lautrec


Tuesday, 21 July 2015

UK academic job

Dear readers interested in a job in experimental nuclear physics,

The University of the West of Scotland (UWS) has a position open for a lectureship in their experimental nuclear physics group.  The research part of the job should bear a relation to the new SCAPA accelerator facility at Strathclyde University, of which the group at UWS is a collaborating member.  The job is based in Paisley, Scotland.  The picture attached to this post is Paisley Abbey, situated in the centre of the town.  Details of the job are found on the UWS website, in the jobs section

Saturday, 18 July 2015

A week in Dubna

I have been spending this week at a conference in Dubna, Russia.  The town was build immediately after the Second World War for the Soviet nuclear research programme, and is the home of Russia's main facility for basic nuclear physics research (as opposed to weapons research, which took place in a number of cities which are still closed).

Perhaps it is most famous for the discovery of some of the superheavy elements -- those elements in the periodic table that are too short-lived to be found naturally-occurring on Earth, but which can, and have been, created in the laboratory. 

The picture attached to this post if a statue of Georgy Flerov, and in the plaque you can see the symbol Fl and the atomic number 114, since Flerovium was named in his honour.  Dubnium is element 105.

I must confess, I was kind of expecting Dubna to be an ugly place,  It was built for a specific purpose in Stalin's time and I expected it to be pretty utilitarian, and not pretty.  Actually, it's a rather attractive place (at least the bit where I am staying), with nice buildings, the Volga cutting through the town, and the forest, which was not cleared when building the town, resulting in trees disturbing practically every pavement.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Two margarines

I wonder if readers of this blog (hi Mum) have previously noticed the similarity in appearance between Professor Vadim Soloviev, erstwhile physicist from Dubna, and John Shuttleworth, Sheffield's most famous son?


Tuesday, 14 July 2015

A pairing of physicists

I wonder if readers have previously noticed the similarity between Nikolay Bogolyubov, lately of the Joint Institute of Nuclear Research, Dubna, and Chris Hooley, extant physicist at St Andrews?


Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Results Day

Today is the day that the University gives the final degree results to students.  There will be some very happy students, and some not so happy.  From Facebook, I've seen mostly the happy comments from students who have done very well.

I'd like to offer my congratulations to all those physics students who will be graduating at the ceremony next week.  Unusually, I won't be attending this year, as I'll be away at a conference.  I'm particularly pleased that all my personal tutees have done well, and it's too bad that I won't see them next week.

When I was an undergraduate (at Oxford), the final exam results were posted on a bit of paper outside the Examination Schools -- a building on the High Street.  The results are they for everyone to see.  We had some guidance as to when the results would be out, but I seem to recall it was delayed for a day or two.  I remember asking one of the physics tutors at my college if there was any news about the results on the day that they were supposed to be out.  He told me that there was going to be a delay of a day or two.  He then added with a smile and a wink that I didn't need to be too worried about the results.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Summer and Units

It's a hot day in the vicinity of the University of Surrey, today.  According to the BBC News website, the temperature at Heathrow airport, around 20 miles away, is 35ºC.   The headline figures on the BBC website seem to be given in degrees Celsius, though I realise that this is user-settable, and I may just have set it in the past.  It does seem the norm now, in the UK, for temperatures to be given in degrees Celsius.  The newspaper closest to hand (an Independent on Sunday from a few weeks ago) also gave degrees Celsius on their map, and only give Fahrenheit temperatures in brackets on the longer lists of temperatures.

It was not always so, of course.  In my medium-length lifetime (I'm the UK's median age), temperatures have switched, weights of groceries have switched from pounds and ounces to kilograms, petrol is now dispensed in litres, not gallons, though we still measure road distances in miles, and buy beer and milk in pints.  I think people's heights are by now pretty widely dual use in terms of metres vs feet and people's weight similarly has both stones and kilograms widely in use in the UK.

I am not terribly young, but my entire school education has been using metric units for all practical purposes.  Anyone else my age or younger ought to find metric units a breeze, so when there was a story on the Radio 4 Today program the other day about a particularly heavy baby, with the weight only given in lb/oz, I tweeted, a bit tongue in cheek:
The main responses I got were along the lines that no-one the responder knows ever quotes baby weights in kilos.  That's quite curious.  Even when I was born, the record from the hospital given to my parents lists my weight in kilos.  Likewise for my two kids, and I certainly only remember their weight in kilos.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Performance Analysis Workshop

We're by a weir on the Wear
Today and yesterday, I've been attending a Performance Analysis Workshop.  This is not a training course designed to help me conduct staff appraisals, but a computational workshop teaching me how to use some tools to analyse if my codes are running efficiently when I put them on big machines and run them in parallel mode, using many processors at the same time to share the work.

The course appealed to me as it included plenty of time in it to do some hands–on work actually at the workshop, with the help of the course presenters, and tutors, into analysing my own code.  That's been really useful, whereas I think if I attended, learned some rather abstract things (or looked at some pre-set simple examples of codes) then went away and tried it with my code, it would not have worked so well.

The workshop is taking place in Durham.  Also taking place in Durham today and yesterday are graduation ceremonies, which helps explain why the closest hotel room I could get for this trip is in Newcastle.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Haway the lads

I'm in Newcastle.  I think it's the first time I've been here long enough to stay overnight. In celebration, here are some of my favourite modern beat combo songs from local people:

The Animals:

and the Unthanks, who I'll be seeing in Guildford later this year:

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Surrey graduate is president of Mauritius

I came across a news story yesterday, mentioning a newsworthy achievement of a graduate of my Univeristy;  Dr Ameenah Gurib–Fakim, with a BSc in Chemistry from the University of Surrey (and a doctorate from Exeter) has become the first woman elected to be President of Mauritus.  Congratulations to her on her election.

I'm sure getting a degree in Chemistry and going on to be the first elected female leader of a country doesn't involve any causal link to any other kind of behaviour.  

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

On a couple of things I've seen

Sometimes semi-spammy posts come my way with interesting things in them, and so it was this week.  One, from the Institute of Physics, included a link to a story with the headline "Culture for PhD students must change, says report from IoP and Royal Astronomical Society."

It reminds me of similar reports from the time I was a postdoc (a long time ago now) -- so in some sense little has changed, but there is perhaps more acknowledgement now that the culture of PhD studies works differently for men and for women that I don't remember from twenty years ago.  I think, really, there has been progress from the time I was a student, though this may very much depend on where you study and on individual experiences.  The idea that you have to routinely work outside work hours to succeed sure isn't one I encourage my PhD students to follow, but it seems to still go on.  I also make pretty sure that any prospective PhD students know that academia is not necessarily going to be the outcome for them, given the numbers. 

The other interesting article that came my way was from sister-magazine of the Daily Telegraph -- The Spectator -- about league tables.  It came about because the University at which I work (the University of Surrey) appeared at number four in the Guardian League table.  The Spectator article is pretty scathing of the table.  It is written by people working in recruitment and can be summed up by their quote
"From an employer’s perspective, the picture is clear and consistent: the Russell Group universities come top, led by Oxbridge and LSE. A degree from the top three will get you into almost any interview room. A degree from Surrey will not. It’s as simple as that"
I am in no sense a fan of league tables.  They attempt to quantify unquantitative things, and the results are not particularly benign, as people end up believing them, and Universities even end up making their mission not to achieve excellence but rather to improve their league table score (though one might fancy that they believe they can only do this by being more excellent).   Still, the Spectator article makes me think that league tables may not be all bad after all.  If it causes the tools of the right-wing press to snort with indignation about how the only thing that matters is to have gone to the same university of the patriarch of the company that might employ them, and that they should be wearing the right old school tie, then perhaps these league tables that rate Universities highly if they have, for example, good teaching feedback, are not such a bad thing.  

Though I've said it before -- let me reiterate about the sentence in the Spectator article about the Russell Group.   The Russell Group is a London Gentleman's Club.   It was set up by a bunch of rich men, in a London hotel. Its purpose was to be a club which you can only join by agreement of those already members, and by contributing a lot of money, and the reason to join is because you are fearful that if you aren't a member of the club then people won't like you.  That's all it is, and that's all students are paying for when they hand a Russell Group university their tuition fee, some of which is passed straight to the Russell Group as membership fee.  It doesn't matter, as long as you are happy with it -- as many people who pay fees to independent schools before going to Univeristy are.  On the other hand, if there is hope for more than the old school tie principle, then we could go for these league tables.  I'd also suggest that if you can't give the right kind of handshake to the authors who have advertised in the Spectator article that their job is to get you a job, that you don't use their recruitment company.  Sadly, the only reason that the Russell Group's premise works is because the recruitment consultants can't be bothered to do more than use the school tie principle.

It wasn't the only blog to be upset about Surrey's 4th place:  This one, concerned with music degrees, was also not happy.  A commenter on it was quick to point out that Surrey had a long tradition of being top of the class in their Tonmeister degree.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Music from Norway

I was in Norway last week and I forgot to post some examples of my favourite music from Norway, so I am remedying that now.  I'll put them up in the order that I first heard them.

First up is A-ha's Take on Me.  I remember hearing the song for the first time, walking by a record shop in L.A. and wondering what it was.  I was 11 years old at the time, and I asked my parents if we could go in and ask what the song was, but they said no.  It wasn't too long until I heard the song again and learnt what it was, and bought the 7" single -- a special edition gatefold version with cartoons inside!

next up is Solveig's song from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt suite.  We spent some time on Peer Gynt in music lessons in school, and I liked it very much.

Finally, Festmusikk, from Mons Leidvin Takle, which I heard on Radio 3 one morning and had to then listen on iPlayer several times to catch the name of the composer, so awesome is the piece

Friday, 22 May 2015

Oslo workshop – Day 5

It's day 5 at the Oslo gamma strength workshop.  I've learnt quite a lot – particularly about how rich the data is from a wide range of experiments, and also how it is difficult to reconcile the interpretation of different experiments using different methods (such as those that excite nuclei with gamma rays vs those that use neutrons).  My talk is coming up later today, and I hope to get some good questions and suggestions for what I might calculate.

As much as I have been enjoying the conference, if I had been a bit quicker to notice, I'd have skipped one of the sessions on Wednesday because there were taking place, in the next building, the Abel lectures from this year's Abel prize.  The Abel prize, named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel, was set up in response to the Nobel prize not featuring a mathematics prize.  It's a prestigious thing, and the award this year went to John Nash Jr and Louis Nirenberg, both of whom were speaking on Wednesday, followed by longer talks about their work and legacy.  Quite an opportunity missed by me to go and see them!

Being at the University of Oslo, too, reminds me about gnus -- a computer program which runs under that operating system (and text editor) known as Emacs.  I used to use gnus as a newsgroup reader, and as an email program.  It is a brilliant program and could do all sorts of neat things, helped by the fact that it was extendable by users who were prepared to do a bit of emacs-lisp programming.  I was, and I even contributed a couple of patches to fix bugs in beta versions of the program.  As a result, my name can be found on every unix (including Apple Mac) computer, in the file containing the list of contributors to the gnus part of emacs.

Yesterday was the conference outing and dinner.  The outing was to Oscarshall, a royal palace set in a peninsula a short walk from the city centre.  The picture above does not do justice to the pretty meadow full of dandelions that we walked past on the way there.  The dinner was very fancy, and very tasty.  The Paleo Brasserie catered for us very well, and in particular gave me an excellent vegetarian meal.  The dessert was white chocolate with dill ice cream.  It's safe to say that I have never had dill ice cream before.

Update: The day after writing this post, John Nash travelled back from Oslo to New Jersey, and died in a car crash on his way home from the airport.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Oslo Method

I'm in Oslo this week for a workshop on gamma–ray strength and level density -- essentially the study of how strongly nuclei respond to being hit by gamma rays, as a function of the gamma ray energy, and what you can tell about nuclear structure through it.  They are experts on the topic here in Oslo, performing experiments with their cyclotron and deducing the gamma strength and level density using the Oslo Method, which sounds like a Cold War thriller. 

I came because I've been involved a bit in calculating strength functions, so I've come to advertise my method to the community.  The code I use to do it has been published and is available for anyone to use, so hopefully my talk will spur some applications of the code.  I also came for the excellent buffet, presented on Monday evening, as shown in the picture.

I started the #oslogamma hashtag on Twitter which has been picked up by a few other participants, so if you are reading this post in the week that I posted it, then you can follow a bit of live-tweeting.